Psychology graduate Sejla Muslic aims to support mental health among Bosnian community

by | May 8, 2023

Muslic, who came to the United States as a refugee from the Balkans when she was 7 months old, is also earning a certificate in children's advocacy studies.
Sejla Muslic

Sejla Muslic, who came to the United States as a refugee from the Balkans when she was 7 months old, is set to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology and a certificate in children’s advocacy studies. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Sejla Muslic’s mother might be looking forward to her upcoming college graduation even more than she is.

“She gets emotional when we talk about it,” Muslic said. “She is very happy, very excited.”

Muslic is set to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology and a certificate in children’s advocacy studies from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and she’ll be fulfilling a dream that her mother, Dzenita, has had for her since they first came to the United States and settled in St. Louis as refugees from the Balkans when Muslic was only 7 months old.

Uprooted by war

The dream of a college education is one that went unfulfilled in Dzenita’s own life. She was a teenager getting ready to apply for college when war erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It grew into one of the deadliest armed conflicts in Europe since World War II and was marked by genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Dzenita, who has roots in both Croatia and Bosnia, eventually wound up fleeing the violence with her father and numerous others and landed in Germany. That’s where she was living when she gave birth to Muslic in a refugee town shortly after the fighting had ceased back home.

Muslic’s grandfather wound up returning to Bosnia, but he and her mother decided the best opportunity they had to make a life for the young mother and daughter was to go to the United States, and they joined a wave of Bosnian refugees who found their way to St. Louis and made a life.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the success of the refugee community with a 2022 documentary “A New Home” and a 2022 book “Bosnian St. Louis: Between Two Worlds” both spotlighting some of tight-knit families who restarted their lives and, with their strong work ethic, went on to leave a rich cultural imprint on the city.

Dzenita’s story is emblematic of that narrative. She worked a series of odd jobs – babysitting and cleaning overnight – to get by and provide for Muslic during their first decade in St. Louis as they moved from north St. Louis to south St. Louis and eventually settled in the Mehlville School District in south St. Louis County.

“I can’t even imagine from her end, being dropped in a country with a baby and not speaking the language, not having anywhere to go and not having anybody to even be of assistance,” Muslic said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I commend all of those who came here and were able to do all of this.”

Making the most of her opportunity

Dzenita’s support helped Muslic excel, even as her connection with the Bosnian community ebbed and flowed as she grew up. Muslic wound up graduating from Mehlville High School and became the first member of her family to go to college.

She started at Fontbonne University in 2019 but wound up transferring to UMSL after her first two years.

“It was definitely a difficult choice to transfer, but I feel like it was definitely the right choice for me and for my education,” Muslic said.

She’d originally chosen Fontbonne believing it would be easier to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of higher education at a smaller university, but it didn’t always prove true. Hearing about the experience of some friends who’d recently graduated from UMSL prompted her to look elsewhere, and she was immediately impressed by the support she received from members of the admissions and advising staff.

“It’s been a complete 180 from what I expected from a big university with how involved and helpful they were with everything,” Muslic said.

Muslic received the Multicultural Student Services Diversity Scholarship when she came to UMSL and continued majoring in psychology. She has taken nearly all of her classes online while working the night shift – seven days on, seven days off – as a pharmacy technician at St. Clare Hospital in Fenton.

Finding her passion

One of Muslic’s first UMSL classes in her major was “Traumatic Stress in Childhood and Adolescence,” which was cross-listed with children’s advocacy studies and was her first exposure to the field. She quickly found herself wanting to know more.

“It really opened my eyes to where my passion was with psychology,” she said. “Having that focus on children and then spiraling out to the entire family – it was set in stone that ‘This is my path, this is my future.’”

It hasn’t been easy working her way through college with a sometimes grueling work schedule, but she’s been motivated by a sense of purpose to help improve the mental health of people in the refugee community.

Members of her mother’s generation didn’t have time to fully process the trauma they endured amid the fighting back home and their often abrupt resettlement in St. Louis.

“It’s definitely something that they’ve carried for a very, very long time, and we’ve seen it turn into significant problems within the community with drugs and alcohol,” Muslic said.

They passed some of their trauma down to their children, who are now leading the way in trying to deal with it. Muslic aims to be part of the solution, helping bring support and resources to the community.

“She knows why she wanted the CAST certificate,” said Jerry Dunn, a clinical professor in the Department Psychological Sciences and the executive director of Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis. “She was very clear in her desires and how it would help her move her professional and personal goals forward. That’s unusual sometimes for an undergraduate student to have that clear of a purpose, but she was very clear that she wanted to use the CAST skills in a way that would help her address the intergenerational trauma that she had seen in her community.”

Dunn couldn’t help but take note of Muslic’s passion. Earlier this semester, when an opportunity arose to suggest a student to speak to the Chancellor’s Cabinet and share their UMSL experience, Dunn immediately thought of Muslic, and she in turn made a strong impression on many of the university’s top leaders.

‘What we want in our workforce’

Muslic’s been interning this semester at Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis’ Kirkwood office to fulfill one of her certificate requirements. With commencement on the horizon, Dzenita has started asking her when she’s going to pursue her next degree.

She might roll her eyes a little at the questions, but Muslic does plan to pursue a master’s degree in social work in the future. She’s looking forward to a short break from school first to work and enjoy a less frenetic life.

Dunn is glad she’ll be pursuing graduate school.

“I think that she is the type of student that we need to be able to support to get the credentials she needs,” Dunn said. “Her critical thinking skills are very well developed. Her empathy for her client’s experiences is also very well developed. That comes through in her interviews and the way that she connects and engages with people. That’s what we want in our workforce moving forward.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik